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Aching Over Access

When it comes to access for the disabled, boards must weigh their duties as board members against their feelings as neighbors.

 

 

The story is heartbreaking and occurs more often than one imagines. A woman lives in a beautiful Manhattan landmarked enclave, a series of co-op townhouses that is a world unto itself – a world of delicacy and refinement that could be part of a Henry James novel, like Washington Square. But this is New York, where no man, woman, or co-op is an island. Even in a hamlet as lovely as this, reality can rear its unsightly head.

What do you do when a long-time neighbor suddenly becomes handicapped and can no longer walk down the six charming steps to the sidewalk? A ramp would help, but, well, it is large and ugly and, practically speaking, it will ruin the look of your home, will bring down property values, and – did we mention? – it is expensive.

But the decision is no slam-dunk. You have to weigh all these factors with the human element: this woman is calling out to you, her neighbor, for help. How can you in good conscience turn her down?

Sometimes, the choice is made for you (in this case, landmark status meant no ramp no way, and the board made a financial settlement with the woman who left her home in paradise for a more accessible Shangri La). Usually, a board has no choice.

A case in point: another board thought a ramp rule was an unreasonable requirement by the city. Responding to a complaint, officials of the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) had been at the 200-unit garden apartment complex in Queens and found it wanting. There was a large elderly population – and there was no wheelchair access. The city’s answer: 100 ramps for the ground floors of the two-story homes. The board’s initial reply: no way. Who’s going to pay for it?

They built the ramps.

Attorney James Samson, a partner in Samson Fink & Dubow, has many rules, but chief among them is this: don’t get into litigation over access for the handicapped. If you do, you lose. Every time.

“I talk to boards and they think they know the law concerning access,” he says with a sigh and a cynical laugh. “They say, ‘We won’t build a ramp. It’s not practical. Let them make us.’”

The problem is “they” do make you do it. The “they” are, in some rare cases, the feds and also the state. But mainly, the agencies doing the pushing are aligned with the city. “The city was okay about handicapped access in the past,” Samson recalls. “They were more lenient. But the [Michael] Bloomberg Administration has gotten religion. They’re obsessive about enforcing the rules.” Agrees Stuart Saft, a partner in the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf: “They’re real sticklers.” So boards should be prepared.

Know the law. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees disabled people access to employment, public accommodation, transportation, public services, and telecommunications. The ADA does not cover private residential buildings unless a commercial space, such as a doctor’s office or retail store, is located there. The New York City building code, however, does impose stricter regulations relating to access in residential buildings than the federal law. Residential dwellings with more than three families, whether they have public accommodations or not, are subject to Local Law 58 of 1987. Under LL58, if less than 50 percent of a multi-family building is being renovated, then only that portion of the building must meet ADA requirements. If more than 50 percent of the building is undergoing renovation, then the entire building, not just the affected areas, must be compliant.

The board has to make a reasonable attempt to satisfy an access complaint. It has to try and accommodate the handicapped if requested. In a Cloverdale co-op on Long Island, Samson got a rare waiver to building a ramp when he explained that the woman asking for one could walk – her problem was she had to carry around a huge oxygen tank. “There was another entrance near the main one where she wanted the ramp,” explains Samson. “She just had to walk a few extra steps.” The alternative was to build a ramp so steeply sloped that it would have been dangerous.

Understand what kind of ramps are permissible. A ramp is a ramp, right? Not when you’re dealing with life and safety issues. But that doesn’t stop some people. “We’ve put in removable ramps, which to the best of my knowledge, are not permitted by code because they’re too steep and unsturdy,” admits one Manhattan managing agent, who requested anonymity. “If it were to follow the requirements [and get a permanent ramp], the ratio of height to slope is so immense that you would have to build a ramp that would virtually extend across the street, and that’s something that most buildings can’t do.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that removable is bad. It depends on your definitions. “They can be ‘permanent’ ramps and you can still disassemble them and move them around, taking them from one entrance to another,” notes Samson. “What you don’t want is the shabby metal grading kind of thing. Then, you’re in trouble. You don’t want to make someone feel unsafe navigating inside the building.”

Beware of the dignity question. A person may be handicapped but, of course, he or she still has pride. Notes Samson: “How many times I’ve had people say, ‘We’ll carry the people down.’ And I say, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that. That is demeaning to people in the wheelchair.’” Indeed. Dignity and humanity must go hand in hand with practicality. A board should reach out to the handicapped and seek out a mutually agreeable solution (i.e., useful but aesthetically pleasing, effective but not too costly). If you don’t, the city will end up imposing one on you.

And, in the end, it all comes back to that balancing act – between your responsibilities as a board member and your role as a neighbor and a human being. You are weighing, as Saft puts it, “the needs of the few with the rights of the many.”

Here are three tales of buildings that made the most of difficult access situations.

 

Planning for the Future

The owners of 720-730 Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan’s Washington Heights knew they would have to build a new entrance for handicapped people. “We’d been talking about it for years,” admits George Karpodinis, president of 720-730 Fort Washington Avenue Owners Corp.

It is clear to see why: the two massive buildings, totaling 234 cooperative apartments, had several short sets of stairs between the curbside and their front doors. Inside 720, there were more stairs on the way to the elevators and no room for a ramp that would comply with the federal, state, and city handicapped access laws.

Earlier in this decade, the co-op board consulted with several architects to get a sense of how much it would cost to create a new entrance and comply with the law. The answer: $250,000, which works out to more than $1,000 per unit. Since, at that time, no handicapped people lived at the property, the board decided to put off the project, hopefully until 2007 or 2008. “We wanted to do it when we were in a better financial position,” explains Karpodinis.

He and the other members of the co-op board knew that they would eventually need to comply. A fifth to a quarter of the residents at 720-730 Fort Washington Avenue are past retirement age and any one of them may eventually have trouble climbing stairs.

In 2004, a resident began to use a wheelchair. The board immediately responded by opening up an alternate route to and from the property that a wheelchair could navigate. The path led to the side of the building, down a ramp and through the workshop of the superintendent.

In early 2005, the HRC contacted the board warning that the ramp to the back door was too steep to comply with federal law. The law also requires buildings to provide handicapped people with a means of entrance equal in quality to what is provided for the other residents. “They are rightly very sensitive to anyone handicapped being treated in a second-class kind of way,” says Karpodinis. “Human Rights gave us a few months in which to submit plans. Then they gave us about six months to actually construct it.”

Using cash from its reserves, the co-op board built a long ramp that stretched from the sidewalk deep into the courtyard between the two buildings, then split with one branch headed to each building. The T-shaped ramp stretches for a total of 280 linear feet. The branch heading to 730 Fort Washington Avenue ends at what used to be the doorway to the super’s workshop. “The exterior ramp of concrete has an ADA-compliant grade and an ADA-compliant set of railings,” says Karpodinis. “This is very important. The ADA-compliance continues into the building through the old workshop to the lobby and elevators.”

Inside the building, the board spent about $40,000 more to dress up the new entrance and renovate the old workshop to become the building’s new mailbox room. The new entrance is now used both by handicapped and non-handicapped residents. Explains Karpodinis: “We decided to renovate the remaining area of the old workshop into a new mailroom for all residents including some mailboxes at wheelchair level. Our goal was to create a multi-use ramp that would create another entrance into the building for all residents. Also, the exterior ramp goes through a garden area which makes it even more appealing.”

He sees other benefits: residents with strollers or wheeled shopping carts have easier access. “We put some thought into how we can turn this into the best possible scenario,” says Karpodinis, who took over as board president after the complaint was filed.

He advises boards to include any handicapped residents in the decision-making process on such matters. That way you might avoid having a formal complaint lodged with city officials. “Be accommodating and as open as possible about costs,” he says. “[The handicapped residents are] going to share those costs as well.”

 

Giving a Lift

Executive Plaza had to become accessible to handicapped people – the question was how? At first, the obvious answer seemed to be to build a ramp. However, after some thought, the board at the Manhattan building and its designers came up with a more economic way to comply.

Set in the upper floors of the old Taft Hotel building in the West 40s, the 445 condominium apartments at Executive Plaza already share space with two big restaurants and a hotel in the base of the building and the bustle of Times Square nearby.

In 2006, the board received a letter from the HRC saying that a handicapped person who lived in the building had complained of access difficulty. It further claimed that the recently renovated lobby, which has a short flight of stairs between the front doors and the elevator, did not comply.

City officials, the building’s handicapped resident, and even some members of the board wanted to solve the problem by building a ramp. However, to be legal, the proposed ramp would have had to be at least 12 inches long for every inch it descended. The board consulted with experts and found that a ramp for these stairs would have needed to stretch at least 31 feet. Squeezing that into the available space would have required tearing out the existing stairs and rebuilding them in a new position, says Jonathan Fink, a partner at the law firm of Samson Fink & Dubow, the co-op’s law firm.

“It would have been breathtakingly expensive,” Fink says. Initial estimates put the cost of a steel or concrete ramp at $250,000 to $300,000. This estimate also did not include any adornments such as brass railings or marble cladding, to help the proposed 31-foot structure match the rest of the lobby.

“The Human Rights Commission doesn’t necessarily care about costs. They care about compliance,” says Fink. However, the designers hired by the board proposed a more economic way to comply: a chair lift.

After some discussion, city officials agreed that a lift would adequately fill the law’s requirements, even though it wasn’t what the complainant had requested. Installed in September 2008, the lift was a fraction of the cost of the ramp and had a much smaller impact both on the building’s reserves and on the look of the lobby. When it’s not in use, the lift folds up against the wall. It cost a total of just $35,000. That includes $27,000 for the chair lift itself, plus about $15,500 for architects’ fees, permits, and an automatic handicapped door. The building also had to spend an estimated $15,000 for modifications to the lobby – the marble reception desk stood in the path of the lift and had to be partially removed. The desk is returning in a new position.

Fink stresses that even though the process can take time, all co-op and condo boards must obey the law. “This is not an optional consideration,” he says. “The city approaches this with a fair amount of vigor.”

 

Ramp It Up

Faced with a potentially huge expense, the managers at Georgetown Mews found a way to provide handicapped accessibility where and when it was needed. There are more than 400 duplex garden apartments buildings at this 930-unit cooperative apartment community in Queens. Each has its own front door and a few steps between its front door and the sidewalk. To make the community compliant with the law, the owners would have had to provide a ramp for each ground-floor unit with a handicapped resident. Over time, that could eventually mean all 400.

Until relatively recently, the question of handicapped accessibility rarely came up, although when it did, handicapped residents that needed the ramps were billed for the cost. In 2002, an unhappy handicapped resident complained and that September, the commissioner of the city’s Human Rights Commission visited the property and gave the co-op board members the bad news: the owners’ corporation would have to pay for the ramps itself.

“We weren’t allowed to bill back to the shareholder,” notes board president Mary Fischer, recalling a tense meeting in which board members vainly argued with the commissioner.

That made the community responsible for what could become a huge cost. Nearly a third of the units at Georgetown Mews are occupied by senior citizens – of the 930 cooperative apartments, 125 are still owned by the sponsor and are lived in by the same elderly tenants who have occupied the apartments for decades.

Initially, some board members disagreed with the HRC. However, the discussion did not last long. “It resolved itself because we didn’t want to have to go into court,” says Fischer.

The board eventually approved a solution that provided accessibility. Instead of building hundreds of permanent ramps, the co-op purchased 15 wooden ones that are portable. When a ramp is no longer needed, it can be put into storage.

The wooden ramps cost about $2,000 each, not including the cost of installation. Putting them in required cutting through the shrubbery in front of the units, moving the mailboxes, and adjusting each ramp to fit a particular townhouse. Fortunately, the community is still receiving income from the occasional sale of sponsor units, which helped cover the cost of buying and maintaining the first 15 ramps. “We figured out how to make it easy and attractive,” says Greenbaum.

Currently, all 15 of the ramps are being used at Georgetown Mews. That’s the most that have ever been needed at one time. If another resident needs a ramp, the owners will buy one.

 

Coda: Happy Ending

In the end, boards try to do the right thing. “Impracticality is the basic problem when boards don’t immediately comply and need to be pushed by the HRC or the courts,” says a Manhattan managing agent. “It’s not that people are uninterested in helping the handicapped, it’s that they’re interested in doing it in a way that makes it physically possible to comply on a permanent basis.”

Certainly it ended as happily as possible for P. Harimohan, a civil engineer in downtown Manhattan who lives at a cooperative apartment building at West 99th Street in Manhattan. He has a progressive muscle disease that has made it increasingly more difficult for him to walk.

In 2006, Harimohan’s condition had declined so that he sometimes needed a wheelchair to move around. However, the lobby of his building had a flight of four steps between the front door and the elevator that made it difficult to enter or leave.

He talked to the board directors. He understood the problems. So did they. Although it cost, and although it was a big change to the look of the lobby, the board members said they would help their neighbor. In 2007, work was completed on a lift that would allow Harimohan to get past the lobby’s now-imposing four steps. The resident is pleased – and touched that the board would go the extra mile. Without the lift, he says, “I couldn’t have gotten to work – I couldn’t get out of the building at all.” There are, sometimes, happy endings. Of sorts.

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